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House Committee Seeks Changes to Accreditation Procedures

The House Education and Labor Committee is looking to include changes to the accreditation process for colleges in the forthcoming Higher Education Act reauthorization.

As the U.S. Department of Education goes through its own negotiated rulemaking to change college accreditation procedures, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on April 3 to get perspectives from stakeholders and experts ahead of the forthcoming Higher Education Act reauthorization proposal. Both the Democrat and Republican chairs of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment agreed that something should be done through Congress to address the problems with the current accreditation process.

"[ED] has not only abandoned its critical role in college accountability but has actively worked to undermine the integrity of the triad through negotiated rulemaking. [ED] is proposing to reduce the its own footprint while providing accreditors with greater flexibility. Ultimately, these proposed changes would allow low-quality schools to flourish and leave accreditors with little to no responsibility for accrediting bad actors," said subcommittee chairwoman Susan Davis (D-Calif.) in her opening statement.

Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Penn.), who serves as ranking member on the subcommittee, framed his desire to address the accreditation process in the context of helping to foster strong educational outcomes for students. "Preserving the current accreditation framework is important – the federal government is not and should never be responsible for prescribing academic standards for institutions. But there is room to reform the system for great accountability and quality," said Smucker.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released in conjunction with the hearing, ED could be doing more to foster accountability in higher education in three areas: educational equality, financial stability and federal student loan defaults. In particular, the GAO found that ED should be using accreditor data in its recognition review process to determine whether accreditors are applying and enforcing their standards to ensure schools provide a quality education.

The report also determined that ED should update its composite score to measure the financial health of schools participating in federal student loan programs. "The composite score has been an imprecise risk measure, predicting only half of the school closures we looked at. This is partly due to the fact that the composite score does not reflect changes in accounting practices, relies on outdated financial measures and is vulnerable to manipulation. Despite these limitations, ED has not updated the score since it was implemented over 20 years ago," said Melissa Emrey-Arras, GAO's director of education, workforce and income security issues and author of the report.

When it comes to student loan defaults, the GAO found that 20 percent of borrowers who began repaying their student loans in 2013 had loans in forbearance for 18 months or more. Forbearance allows borrowers to temporarily postpone payments and bring past due loans current. In 2018, GAO suggested that Congress should consider statutory changes to strengthen schools' accountability for student loan defaults, but legislation has not yet been enacted.

Noe Ortega, deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education, urged lawmakers to address the "accreditation bloat," where the accreditors must assess and monitor a large range of institutional behaviors, outcomes, policies and practices. As the higher education landscape continues to change with new providers and structures for the delivery of higher learning, Ortega wants ensure that states are included in identifying "new approaches to strengthening accountability and ensuring a continued adherence to quality by the American system of higher education."

As one of the seven regional accrediting agencies in the U.S., the New England Commission of Higher Education has been watching the reauthorization of the HEA closely, according to NECHE president Barbara Brittingham. "We hope that under a re-authorized Higher Education Act, regional accreditation can continue to fulfill its dual responsibilities of quality assurance for the public and quality improvement for institutions," said Brittingham in her testimony. "We believe in allowing for more flexibility and innovation in the HEA so that institutions can focus on outcomes that matter most to their students, workforce partners and communities."

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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